Archive for August 1979

Apocalypse Now

August 15, 1979

The true hero of Francis Ford Coppola’s backbreaking Apocalypse Now, if there is one, might be Chef, the harried saucier and whacked-out soldier played by Frederic Forrest. Chef is about the only guy in the movie who has a relatable past and who looks to the future. He reacts to the madness of Vietnam, and to the inscrutability of the particular mission he’s part of, as most of us would. Chef eventually becomes the default partner of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), whose assignment is to find and kill (“terminate with extreme prejudice”) one Walter E. Kurtz, a colonel who went crazy and went native, forming his own Montagnard army out in the darkness of the jungle.

Apocalypse Now, which shared the 1979 Palme d’Or with The Tin Drum, is an epic freak-out, a fever dream of immense proportions. The making of it famously almost killed Coppola, and it could be argued that his filmmaking afterwards never felt quite as vital or as organic. Vietnam, or the Vietnam he recreated, burned him out as surely as it did Willard and Kurtz. As the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness showed, Coppola began the journey as Willard and ended as Kurtz, and one can sense that in the film itself, which seems to shift allegiance from Willard to Kurtz. When we finally meet Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a great bald shambling mountain usually in shadow, he both does and doesn’t seem to be the monster we’ve been waiting for. Unlike the Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which provided the movie’s structure and throughline, this Kurtz doesn’t become a savage in proximity with other savages. Vietnam has made him a savage. And he’s bitterly, even ironically aware of this.

Willard receives his orders over a crunchy lunch of roast beef and shrimp, while an amusingly nervous Harrison Ford plays a tape of Kurtz’s voice. Coppola moves in for a close-up of the shrimp, as if Kurtz’s musings on a snail crawling across a straight razor were issuing forth from the dead crustacean. As the general who puts the hit out on Kurtz, G.D. Spradlin carries effortless authority when he intones “Every man has a breaking point. You and I have them. Walt Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously he has gone insane.” Before that, though, Spradlin has a great little moment when, describing the pre-breakdown Kurtz as “a man of wit and humor,” he smiles to himself as if remembering something hilarious Kurtz did or said, something made tragic now because that Kurtz is gone. Also, I always wonder who the strange-looking dude in civvies is, the one whose sole contribution to the chat is “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

Needing to get back in the shit, Willard takes the mission and finds himself in a PBR among a motley crew, including the aforementioned Chef, a kid from the projects nicknamed Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne, ridiculously young and wiry), and the boat’s grim-faced captain Chief (Albert Hall). Most of them are kids, though it’s worth noting that Sheen, despite his weathered voice (reading Michael Herr’s narration) and gravitas, was only 36 when filming started, and Frederic Forrest was four years his senior. Nobody on the boat really understands the mission, least of all Willard himself, who keeps squinting at Kurtz’s dossier and marveling at what a model soldier he was. Perhaps Kurtz hasn’t gone rogue; perhaps he has simply achieved military apotheosis, carrying out the logical extension of the armed forces.

The centerpiece of the movie, of course, is the segment dealing with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), leader of the Air Cav helicopter division that will escort Willard and his boat and crew through a particularly hairy part of the river. Kilgore is a near-cartoonish hawk who lives and breathes war and is also an avid surfer — this section of the film is pure John Milius, who wrote the screenplay with Coppola. At first, Kilgore isn’t very gung-ho about helping Willard out (the order got lost in communication, or at least Kilgore pretends it did), but when he hears that the village’s surf has “a fantastic peak,” he’s all over it. Essentially, Kilgore and his men rip the shit out of the village and napalm it so that a star surfer traveling with Willard, the California boy Lance (Sam Bottoms), can strut his stuff.

Coppola clearly finds this horrifyingly absurd — it’s probably the film’s most vivid instance of Strangelove-esque satire. Yet somehow Coppola finds it in himself to turn the episode into one of the greatest combat sequences ever filmed. We feel horror at the wanton taking of life, yes, but we also feel exhilaration. For a few minutes, we enter Kilgore’s universe — Milius’ universe — where war is a cascading orgasm of glory. It doesn’t hurt that Coppola recruits Wagner’s ferocious “Ride of the Valkyries,” used as iconically here as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was in 2001. Even here, though, we get glimpses of Coppola peeking through Milius’ bluster: the soldier who refuses to get off the helicopter (“I’m not going! I’m not going!”); another soldier wounded and screaming, loaded into a med chopper that falls victim to a VC girl with a hidden grenade. Kilgore’s rhetoric soon changes from “Outstanding, Red Team, outstanding. Getcha a case of beer for that one” to “I want my men out of there. I want them out.” The sequence ends, legendarily, with Kilgore’s “napalm” soliloquy, delivered by Duvall as if he were reflecting on a childhood memory of Christmas. “Someday this war’s gonna end,” he finishes, sounding saddened, understanding all too well the trouble men like Willard encounter once war has ended for them.

After this, the movie returns to its rambling riverboat episodic structure, though there are still many pleasures. A highlight is the scene at the Do Lung Bridge, where Lance drops acid and the eternal confusion of war is summed up by that great exchange: “Who’s the commanding officer here?” “Ain’t you?” It’s here that Carmine Coppola’s foreboding score gets utterly weird, a cross between carnival music and the exertions of a monster movie — which describes this movie’s Vietnam as well as anything else.

At long last, Willard finds Kurtz, holed up along with a coke-addled Dennis Hopper and an unrecognizable Scott Glenn. It’s as if Kurtz’s mania were contagious, infecting any rational men who enter his lair. Marlon Brando mumbles in the shadows, delivering hipster rants about atrocities, while Martin Sheen listens silently, long since resigned to the fact that he’s never really been the center of this movie. Willard is a cipher, a burned-out husk who’s seen too much death to be at peace. (The 2001 Redux version, which I own but can’t bring myself to watch, apparently adds a little more shading to Willard.) This loud epic dark fantasia ends on a rather elliptical note, which seems the only way for it to end. It begins, in fact, with an end — the Doors’ “The End” — and concludes the same way, in a humid room that bears witness to bloodshed. Willard begins by punching a mirror and ends by destroying another mirror image of himself.

Apocalypse Now is a confounding mix of the conventional and the surreal, a man-on-a-mission war flick that expands into a meditation on The Warrior, complete with recitations from “The Hollow Men.” Interestingly, the last words we hear (aside from a reiteration of Kurtz’s “The horror”) are “PBR Street Gang, this is Almighty” — even God can’t impose himself in the jungle, where men kill each other for reasons no more or less insane than the reasons Kurtz has scattered heads and other body parts around his compound like so much trash. There is greatness in Apocalypse Now, but there is also madness, and they feed off each other. Coppola flew, Icarus-like, too close to the heat of a certain truth about man and nature, and it burned him, badly. Brando alone seems untouched by it, floating imperiously above moral concerns. Kurtz is the Almighty here, although we see that the real force is the jungle itself.

People didn’t really know what to make of Apocalypse Now at the time; it had been hyped and heralded for so long prior to its release that it must’ve come as an anticlimactic disappointment. Thirty years on, it looks painfully rich and relevant and wise, willing to face the heart of darkness straight on, an acid flashback to a time when America and the world seemed “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/And all the children are insane.”

Cannibal Holocaust

August 2, 1979

“A small group of documentary filmmakers ventured into a godforsaken place far from civilization. They disappeared without a trace, except for the footage they left behind. The movie you are about to see is that footage.” Sound familiar?

It worked like gangbusters for The Blair Witch Project, which used its cinema verite premise as a marketing ploy. But in order to prove the unoriginality of Blair Witch‘s gimmick, you don’t even have to look to the film that directly preceded it, The Last Broadcast. Both films were scooped twenty years earlier by Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust, which actually takes two narrative tracks. In the movie’s first half, anthropology professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, perhaps better known to some under his old-school porn alias R. Bolla) is tapped to go to the remote jungles of South America to find out what happened to four missing documentarians. After some fancy footwork in which he and his guides manage to impress the natives enough not to be eaten, Professor Monroe stumbles across a bunch of film cans hanging from trees. He makes it back to New York with the footage, and in the second half of the film the professor and the TV executives who want to air the footage watch the images with growing revulsion.

We do, too. Picked up in 2001 by Grindhouse Releasing (co-owned by Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage) for a gradual cross-country crawl through art houses and festivals, Cannibal Holocaust has long been an infamous Video Nasty, pursued by gorehounds over the last two decades. But this film is hardly a fun splatterthon like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It was among the first of the Eurocannibal flicks (others include Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, aka Make Them Die Slowly), and it’s backed not only by an upsetting cinema verite approach but by a Message. And a rather ham-handed one at that, spelled out for you at the end: “Who were the real cannibals?”

It’s a fair question. Unlike Dr. Monroe and his guides — who enter the territory humbly but firmly, with a solid grasp of the native customs, and therefore survive — the four arrogant journalists blunder into “the Green Inferno,” where three tribes co-exist not altogether peacefully. The documentarians seem less horrified than jazzed by the brutal primitive rituals they witness and, in some cases, set in motion by their own insensitive actions. Deodato is obviously scoring points on the media’s complicity in the violence it reports on, a satirical sword taken up again by Man Bites Dog. In that Belgian gut-puncher as well as this film, the camera crew find the line blurred between subject and observer; they are drawn into hideous acts, given license by the situation to indulge their id. The crew in Cannibal Holocaust (three men and a woman) either perpetrate or are privy to mutilation, rape, and possibly murder. Those who can’t handle rape scenes in movies, by the way, are advised to give this film a wide berth; it contains at least three such scenes, including a woman violated by a rock during a ritual designed to condemn adultery.

At first, white audiences might find the natives appalling. But they’re only doing what they’ve done for centuries; their ways are sometimes barbaric by our standards, but then our ways might be barbaric by theirs, too. There’s a bit when one of the crew members shoots a piglet for no reason other than swaggering spite; the natives might butcher animals — and, Christ, do we ever see animals slaughtered on camera for real — but always for food. The American journalists begin to act out their idea of native savagery, without the cultural context that might give it meaning. Three of the men on the crew gang-bang a screaming native girl; the woman in the crew looks on with distaste, but doesn’t do much to stop the assault. Later, the crew proudly shows off the result of this rape — the movie’s defining image, the girl impaled by a spike through her vagina and out of her mouth. Was this the tribe’s punishment of the girl for her defilement, or did the crew do it? It’s ambiguous.

We keep going back to Dr. Monroe in New York, showing this footage to the gradually nauseated network execs. The final reel gives Cannibal Holocaust the shape of a particularly virulent revenge flick, and it delivers the revenge with a large helping of rage and disgust. The men are torn, literally, to bits; the woman is stripped and raped, then bashed to death with sticks and rocks. Intestines, genitals, gnawed body parts are scattered about the scorched green landscape. The end. A shaken network exec orders all the footage burned; a quietly despairing Dr. Monroe makes his way down to the New York streets, ruminating on the difference between savages.

And we’ve just watched it all, and what does that make us? Cannibal Holocaust may be the nastiest of the Video Nasties. It turns our voyeurism into horror, and then exposes our horror as hypocrisy.4


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